I had a dream once, that my body had become part of the landscape. The curve of my belly was now a hill that people and animals were walking across. Small children were playing on my forearms and trees were growing in the soil between my fingers rooting my hands to the ground. It was not an unpleasant dream – in fact I found it quite comforting to witness my body sinking into the soil and becoming a part of it. I awoke feeling rooted and at peace.
I’ve been remembering that dream these past weeks as I’ve been wandering in the woods and along the shoreline of this island that is becoming my new chosen home. After sixteen months of traveling the world with my laptop and a small suitcase, I’ve landed on Vancouver Island – a place I’ve long felt drawn to but have only had a flirtatious relationship with.
I want to become part of the landscape here. My wandering feet are ready to root themselves, to find familiar paths that feel like home, to learn to know trees that feel like kin. Though I was born and bred a prairie girl and will always know the prairies as my first love, there is something about this landscape that brings both soothing and aliveness to my body in a way that feels right for this season of my life.
On these misty cool days of a Pacific north-western December, while I deepen my relationship with this landscape and this climate, I’ve found myself drawn back into the work of John O’Donohue, a poet and mystic who could translate landscape into language in ways that most writers only dream of. Reading and listening to him anew has awakened something in me that feels true and good for this moment. While I am here, I want to slow down and live as the mystics have taught us to live. I want to unleash the inner mystic in me and lean into whatever wisdom awaits among the tall trees and rocks on the wild shoreline.
“What you encounter, recognize or discover depends to a large degree on the quality of your approach. Many of the ancient cultures practiced careful rituals of approach. An encounter of depth and spirit was preceded by careful preparation.
“When we approach with reverence, great things decide to approach us. Our real life comes to the surface and its light awakens the concealed beauty in things. When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us. The rushed heart and arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter that embrace.” – John O’Donohue(From Beauty: The Invisible Embrace)
On Saturday, I sat on a rock at the edge of the sea, looking out into the shrouded expanse of the horizon. Noticing movement at the edge of my vision, I looked down and there was a seal, floating on its back just feet away, looking up at me with curious, friendly eyes. “Welcome to the neighbourhood,” it seemed to say. “Take care of the place and treat your neighbours well and you’ll find a way to belong here amongst your kin.”
In January, I’ll be moving into a small apartment in a quiet little town near a lake. When I first came here, I thought I’d be living in the city. I’ve become accustomed to having the conveniences of a city available to me ever since I left the rural life behind in those restless days of early adulthood. But I surprised myself when I landed here by falling in love with a place and becoming intrigued with the idea of returning to a more rural life. It might have something to do with the fact that I put “proximity to good walking trails” and “space to set up a hammock under a tree” on my wish list for my next home (a wish list I’m happy to say that this place fulfills completely).
While re-listening to John O’Donohue’s interview on the On Being podcast, which he did just before he died, his words about thresholds felt particularly timely. “If you go back to the etymology of the word ‘threshold,’” he said, “it comes from ‘threshing,’ which is to separate the grain from the husk. So the threshold, in a way, is a place where you move into more critical and challenging and worthy fullness.”
I have a lovely and nostalgic relationship with the word “threshing”. Among the highlights of my childhood were the visits we sometimes made (in years when we could afford such an outing) to the Austin Thresherman’s Reunion. After the parade of antique farming equipment passed by, the old threshing machines would be lined up on the dirt floor of the arena and the farmers (and wannabe farmers) would gather for a friendly threshing competition. My siblings and I would always coax our dad out into the arena, knowing that if he went down there, he would almost certainly bring home the prize – a shiny silver dollar. Few people could beat my dad when it came to the stooking competition. (To “stook” is to stack the sheaves of wheat in upright pyramids so that the heads of wheat have the best chance of drying.) Afterwards, the stooks would be fed into the threshing machines and the wheat would be shaken from its husks.
Years after losing my dad to a farming accident, I stand at this new threshold, reflecting on what it means to metaphorically separate the wheat from the chaff as I prepare for the seasons ahead. What will be harvested to nourish me over the winter and what will be saved for planting when the sun begins to warm the soil?
It’s not lost on me that only a week after I move into my new place, I’ll be launching my next book, Where Tenderness Lives: On healing, liberation and holding space for oneself. It seems an auspicious time to be sending this book, which I’ve worked so hard to gestate, out into the world. Like a pregnant parent, I’m now in the nesting phase that often marks the turning point when birth is on the horizon.
“I think a threshold is a line which separates two territories of spirit,” O’Donohue said in that interview. “And I think that, very often, how we cross is the key thing.”
Two territories of spirit. That’s an intriguing thought that won’t leave me alone. What is the territory I am leaving? What is the territory I’m moving into? How do my new book and my new home play into that? And how do I wish to cross over?
If these past few weeks have given me any clues (and I believe they have), the next territory of spirit will have something to do with a deepening relationship with Mystery and a kinship with the non-human beings I encounter in this new place. Perhaps while I lie back and look up at the giant tree that’s near the small patio where I intend to put up a hammock come Spring, my dream will be realized, and my body will become part of the landscape.
As I set my intention for how I wish to cross over into this next territory of spirit, I turn to Richard Wagamese, another wise guide whose final years were lived out not far from where I now live.
I want to listen deeply enough that I hear everything and nothing at the same time and am made more by the enduring quality of my silence. I want to question deeply enough that I am made more not by the answers so much as my desire to continue asking questions. I want to speak deeply enough that I am made more by the articulation of my truth shifting into the day’s shape. In this way, listening, pondering and sharing become my connection to the oneness of life, and there is no longer any part of me in exile.
I wake up among the treetops. I peek out the window near my head and I see the shadowy lake below, surrounded by the shadowy trees. Across the lake, I hear the train that was probably the reason for my waking. I close my eyes and a smile creeps across my face. I love the melancholy sound of a train passing through wild spaces. I don’t care for it much in the city, but out here, away from civilization, the clicking and clacking and screeching of metal on metal, especially in the middle of the night, sounds to me like kindness and sadness all mixed together.
I have to pee, of course, as a fifty-seven-year-old body does in the middle of the night, but I close my eyes and pretend otherwise, willing my body to hold off until morning. It would be too much work to grope around in the dark for my headlamp, climb down the ladder from my perch in the loft of this tiny off-grid cabin, and make my way up the dark path, made more treacherous by the exposed roots half-buried by Fall leaves, to the compost toilet in the dark little outhouse. Too much work and too much awakening. Luckily, my body cooperates and I fall back to sleep.
In the morning, I climb down the ladder, pull on a sweater, and make my way to the toilet. After grabbing breakfast from the cooler that feels less-than-cool and should probably be reloaded with ice from the freezer at the far end of the property, I wander down to the lake. I curl up in an Adirondack chair on the dock and watch the ripples on the lake. It’s mesmerizing to watch them, the way they shatter the reflection of the trees into thin strips of perpetual motion.
I wonder, on this windless morning, what is causing the ripples. There are no boats out on this small lake, and nobody else in the handful of cottages is stirring. There are no fish jumping or birds landing, so why the steady ripples?
I stare at them, deep in thought, and something else pops into my mind. “I wish I remembered how to pray.” It’s a thought that I’ve had only occasionally in the years since I stopped going to church and since my faith became so deconstructed I wasn’t sure it existed anymore. Not feeling very certain there’s a god to pray to anymore, I mostly gave up on any attempt at prayer, but sometimes I miss it. Sometimes I miss trusting that there is a higher power with whom I can entrust my worries.
I still think of myself as spiritual, still believe I have spiritual experiences in which I witness the presence of a force greater than me, but prayer feels much more elusive when “god/goddess/mystery” is a more nebulous thing than my former Christian beliefs held to be true. Without the belief that god is the benevolent, omnipotent father-figure I can bring my requests to, I don’t know where to direct my prayers.
This morning, though, I’m missing the simplicity and trust of the prayers of my earlier life. There are worries in my life that I want to entrust to a higher power. There are things going on in my daughters’ lives that I wish I could offer up to a god who might solve their problems for them (since I can’t solve them myself). “Find this daughter a job, give this daughter some friends so she doesn’t feel as lonely.” It’s a “god as vending machine” belief that I’m probably longing for most… drop a few prayers in the slot and out pops the solution, easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.
Unfortunately, even in my most fervently religious days, god never showed up as a vending machine, no matter how many prayers I dropped into the slot. At some point, I just couldn’t reconcile the randomness of it all, or the way that god became, for so many, a weapon for manipulation, power, abuse, and shame. That’s when prayer stopped making sense.
Still staring at the lake, I realize that the ripples have disappeared and the water is nearly flat. I’m puzzled for a moment, and then I realize that it was ME who created the ripples – not a boat, bird, or fish. When I stepped onto the dock, the ripples started, and they only stopped once I was still enough that the dock no longer moved.
Suddenly it occurs to me that this may be prayer – bringing my worries to the lake and then sitting so still that the lake responds to my stillness. Sitting so still that even the ripples in my mind are settling. Maybe this is the point – not to send my wishes to a benevolent being I hope will reshape the world in my favour, but to be in acceptance of the world as it is – in tune with the lake, in stillness, and in deep presence.
I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem…
Praying It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones; just pay attention, then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate, this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.
Much later, after sitting by the fire for hours and reading by the light of my headlamp, I turn off my light to walk to the outhouse. The full moon offers enough light that I can safely navigate the path despite the roots. It helps that I am becoming familiar with this path, on my second day here, getting to know these woods around my tiny cabin. I look up to the moon, and for a moment, I stand in reverence of her beautiful glow. Perhaps this, too, is prayer.
I can’t fix it. I want SO BADLY to fix it. My daughter is in distress, she’s far away, and all I can do is be here, listening, at the other end of a FaceTime call. I feel so helpless. My words feel empty and void of purpose. My emotions swell into desperation as my nervous system sends my brain scrambling to find at least one small thing that is fixable by me, her mom. There is nothing.
This is the hard stuff of parenting young adult children from a distance. I feel so frequently helpless when their lives overwhelm them. I can’t show up with food, I can’t rush over to their apartments to hug them or do their laundry… I can’t even send them a plane ticket back home because “home” is no longer a physical place. (And yes… the niggling guilt over selling their childhood home sometimes pokes at me when the desperation swells.)
Even as I write this, the tears well up in my eyes. I feel the enormity of it all over again. This parenting stuff – even when the children are grown and living lives of their own – it’s not for the faint of heart. It wrecks us again and again, tears us apart and leaves us raw, battered and lost. Nothing has ever made me feel more helpless and vulnerable than parenting. Nothing else has triggered my fears of irrelevance, incompetence, or failure in quite the same way.
In an interview I listened to yesterday, Kerry Washington was talking about two of her acting roles and how those roles related to parenthood. The first role she talked about was in Scandal, a series in which she played a “fixer” who was almost always the most powerful person in the room, fixing things on behalf of a government, believing she was doing so for the greater good. During the eight years of taping Scandal, Washington gave birth to her own two children, and she wrestled with whether her character, Olivia Pope, should become a mom in the show. It was a deliberate choice on the part of Shonda Rhimes, though, not to let the character become a parent, because that would have made Olivia too vulnerable and no longer as capable of the kind of power, control and ruthlessness she needed to be a fixer.
Immediately after Scandal, Washington appeared on Broadway in American Son in which she played the mother of a Black son who’s gone missing and may have been killed by the police. This was the counterpoint to Olivia Pope, a role in which she could explore the vulnerability and powerlessness that comes along with parenthood. Unlike Olivia, the mother in American Son has no power to fix (especially as the mother of a Black son).
It’s true – there is a way in which parenthood disempowers the “fixer” in us. It takes away some of our potency and leaves us vulnerable and exposed. It’s an unraveling, a deconstructing – it unmoors us from what once felt like control.
Some of us resist that deconstruction at every level. Helicopter parents, for example, or those who’ve sometimes been referred to as “Tiger moms” – they cling desperately to their ability to control every situation on behalf of their children. They push away the powerlessness and swoop in to rescue, control, and strong-arm whatever situation threatens their child. Back when I used to spend summer evenings in a lawn chair beside many soccer fields, I witnessed this resistance on a regular basis – parents who reacted to feelings of powerlessness by inserting themselves into every situation. Some always knew better than the coach, some insisted on having input into every decision that would impact the team (and specifically their child), and some were overprotective about the potential for injury to their child.
I understand the temptation to over-control. I have sat helpless on the sidelines and witnessed more than one injury to one or the other of my children – once a concussion that required an ambulance be brought onto the field, once a broken arm, and once a torn ligament that required knee surgery.
It’s a vulnerable thing to allow your child to enter a situation where you have no control over what happens to them. It starts when we watch their first lurching steps across the living room, and it gets increasingly more complex as they get older and take more and more risks. From the first day of school to their first sleepover to their first job – it’s a gradual (and sometimes painful) process of letting go.
Now, while my daughters each navigate big cities and diverging lives far away from me, I have to let go even more. The thread that ties us to each other has stretched and I have less and less capacity to be the “fixer” in their lives. Sometimes I feel completely lost, not sure what my role is anymore.
For years now, I have been teaching people that holding space is the practice of walking alongside someone and supporting them, without trying to control them, while they pass through liminal space into an unknown future. At its heart, it’s about letting go of our attachment to the outcome.
But what about when the person we’re trying to hold space for is our child and we’ve been the primary person committed to raising them into responsible, compassionate adulthood? How do we let go of the outcome THEN?! In some ways, it feels like the outcome is the WHOLE POINT of parenting – we want to attach the label of “success” to their version of adulthood.
Therein lies the rub. It is ALWAYS the hardest to hold space for the people we are closest to, and the complexity of it increases for the people we’ve birthed and/or raised. We can’t help but be attached to the outcome when we love someone, especially when we’ve been highly invested in training and guiding that person into adulthood. We want the outcome to be a better, happier, healthier, more fulfilling life. We want them to know ease and love and contentment.
There is love in this attachment and in our wish for them, of course, but there is a shadow side too. Especially when it comes to our children, our egos are invested in the outcome. We don’t want our children to fail because we ourselves are afraid to fail and their failure can feel like a personal failure on our part. We don’t want our children to experience discomfort because we ourselves are afraid of discomfort and we get triggered by theirs. We don’t want our children to be unhappy, afraid, lonely or depressed because we’re uncomfortable with our own emotions, and (because our children feel like extensions of us) their emotions make us feel too exposed.
It is hard to disentangle ourselves from our children’s identity and emotional experience. It’s hard to watch them be educated in the school of hard knocks.
Some of us, because we haven’t done enough of our own healing and personal growth work, become enmeshed and codependent, shaping our lives around our children’s lives and taking too much responsibility for their emotional well-being. I understand this tendency – in my most vulnerable moments, when I want to swoop in as the fixer on my daughters’ behalf, I feel nearly helpless to the energetic pull toward codependency. There’s a pattern of it in my life. It flared up especially during the two times my former husband attempted suicide. In the years since, I’ve had to work hard to avoid slipping back into the pattern whenever another out-of-control situation presents itself.
It sounds selfish to say this, but I’m going to say it anyway… the best thing we can do for our children when they are struggling is to take care of ourselves. I don’t mean that we take care of ourselves AT THE EXPENSE of them, centering our own needs and feelings and dismissing theirs. No, I mean that we hold space for ourselves, for whatever ways that we get triggered and feel powerless and desperate, so that we are grounded enough to provide for them the “safe haven and secure base” that they need.
It’s become a well-worn cliché to say “put on your own oxygen mask first”, but it’s worth repeating nonetheless. We can’t support our children from an empty tank. We can’t hold space for them well if we’re not holding space for ourselves. We can’t support their breakdowns well if we are too enmeshed and their breakdowns trigger our own. We can’t help them hold their big emotions if we are afraid of those big emotions and stifle them in ourselves.
Since selling my house (and my daughters’ childhood home) last year, I’ve come to the realization that, especially now that there is no physical place to return to, my children’s version of home is ME. My presence serves as an anchor for them while they learn to navigate the world on their own.
I want to be a solid and secure place in which they can sink their anchor. I want to be emotionally available and reliable so that they don’t have to second guess my capacity to hold space for them. I want to do my own work, continuing to heal my own woundedness and resourcing myself well, so that, whenever they need it, I am a safe place to land. I want to be on the other end of FaceTime, not solving their problems for them, but listening and supporting and loving and empowering. And I want them to know they can call.
Our children don’t need enmeshed or codependent parents. They don’t need fixers who will disempower them when they swoop in with solutions. They don’t need us to become overly attached to their identity, their emotional experience, or the outcome of their decisions.
They need a safe place where they can fall apart occasionally. They need to know that they won’t be abandoned (or fixed) when they fail. They need to be allowed to have big emotions without having those emotions shamed, ridiculed, fixed, or projected back at them. They need to be allowed the autonomy to discover their own resilience and their own tools for navigating hard places. They need us to hold space for them – with a love that’s not enmeshed.
But first… we have to learn to hold space for ourselves.
I am leaping into liminal space. I have sold my house and this month I’ll be selling my furniture, packing my personal belongings into storage and heading off to Europe for a few months. After that, I plan to spend some time in Costa Rica, and then… I don’t know. I haven’t yet decided how long I will live a nomadic lifestyle and how (or where) I will eventually come to define “home”.
When people ask about my future plans, some are incredulous, some are baffled, and some express their longing to do something similar. It’s hard to explain a choice like this – to completely uproot myself at the age of 56 – because I’m not sure I entirely understand it myself. I just know that the house I have lived in for twenty-four years, where I raised my three daughters, doesn’t feel like my forever home, nor does the city I live in.
If you ask me on a bad day, when I’m a little terrified of not having a place to call home or a little overwhelmed with all of the work I still have to do this month, I might look at you with a blank look on my face and say that I have absolutely no idea why past-me thought this was a good idea.
If you ask me on a good day, though, I will tell you about how I have always wanted to live an adventurous life, how I want to be playful with the future now that I am no longer responsible for giving my children a home, how I feel like this northern prairie city has given me all that it can, how I now feel pulled toward the ocean, and how I want to test the limits of my capacity to be liminal, alone and still grounded (while also seeking out the people who will hold me in this liminal space). I will tell you about the ways in which I have crafted my life for just such a moment, building work that is not tied to a place and growing an international circle of friends and clients.
Last year, I wrote about how I was helping my daughters launch from my home into homes and lives of their own, and, in many ways, it now feels like I’m doing the same for myself. We are at different stages of our launching, each seeking what’s next in our lives. In archetypal language, they are moving to the next step beyond their Maiden phase, and I am moving from Mother to Crone. (Some say that there is a Queen phase before Crone, and that is likely more accurate for me. I also think my daughters need a name for the phase between Maiden and Mother – or an alternative to “Mother”. Admittedly, these archetypes are a little limited and rooted in an older view of womanhood, but the overall concept still has some relevance.)
When these transitions happen, whether in youth or in later adulthood, there is always some time spent in liminal space where the old story can be released and the new story can be born. That’s where I am now, feeling wobbly and unsettled. I wish that I could say that, after all of the experience I’ve had in liminal space (plus writing a book about it), I am surrendering to the process and walking through it with grace and acceptance. But that is only true in those moments when my higher self manages to soothe the reactivity of the scared little girl in me who believes she is only safe when the world feels familiar and predictable.
What I know to be true in these times of liminality is that there is value in ritual and ceremony – exercises that help us mark the transition, process the emotions, release our attachments, soothe the reactivity, and honour the growth. To that end, I have begun to think of the next six months as a form of pilgrimage or quest. It’s not clear what I am looking for yet, but isn’t that the nature of a quest? That we don’t find the answers until we learn what the right questions are? I’m still looking for the right questions.
To surrender to the quest, when all feels liminal and the outcome is hidden behind a shroud, takes a special kind of trust, and in many of my wobbly moments, I’m not sure I’ve found that kind of trust yet. My higher self tells me I have, but my scared inner child keeps insisting she’s delusional and not to be trusted.
Sometimes one has to leap in order to discover they have the courage for flight. Before I leap, at the end of this month when I hand the keys to this house to the next owner, I’ll keep working on soothing the inner child so that the courage doesn’t get lost in all of the noise.
As I prepare for what next month will bring me, I am finding that mini-pilgrimages help prepare me for the big one. To that end, I am doing things like visiting places that feel sacred and have meaning to me and listening, one more time, for the wisdom that the prairies have to offer. I am also setting off nearly every morning on my bicycle, to find a place near the river where I can sit with my journal to process all of the big feelings coming my way. (You can read about one of those morning journal sessions over at the Centre’s blog.)
There is something especially meaningful about my morning pilgrimages. Although I write in my journal in many other places, the wisdom that comes to me after I have cycled to my location, while I sit and watch the river flow by feels uniquely poignant. It helps to sustain me during these disruptive times. The movement of my pedaling feet helps to soothe my activated nervous system, the trees and the river speak to me when I’m still, and the return cycle helps me integrate what’s been spoken into my journal before I return home. This is the way of a pilgrimage – first there is the going out, then there is the pause for listening, and then there is the return journey.
A pilgrimage – even one as minor as a bicycle ride to the park – holds within it the capacity to give us back our imagination. That’s the nature of the “pause for listening” at the mid-point of a pilgrimage. After releasing whatever keeps us attached to the past, we are able to see through more clear and creative eyes, imagining that which was not accessible to us in the midst of the clutter of our old stories and patterns.
This pattern of Release, Receive, and Return also shows up in a labyrinth walk, and that’s another place I’m visiting regularly this month. When I visit, just as I do at the park with my journal, I sit at the centre, in solitude and silence, and I am able to hear the wisdom that my scared inner child was masking with all of her anxious noise. The journey to the centre is not unlike the soothing walks I used to take my daughters on when they needed emotional regulation.
I would love it, dear readers (especially those of you who are also in the midst of liminal space), if you could all join me at the labyrinth, but I know that it will only be possible for a few of you. If you can’t be there, perhaps you can find your own form of pilgrimage? Perhaps you can set out for the park with your journal? Or find a labyrinth in your neighbourhood? Or visit a place that feels sacred for you, to see what wisdom the land wants to impart on you? I believe that there is something especially powerful about people collectively seeking wisdom for what comes next, and I believe that’s especially needed in the world right now. What might happen if we all do it simultaneously in our own parts of the world?
Wherever we are in our lives, one thing is certain – we will continue to face transitions up until the day our bodies reach the final transition, from life into death. We can meet those transitions with fear, anger, and resistance as our guides and companions, or we can seek the wisdom of our higher selves and invite acceptance, courage and peace to accompany us. If you choose the second, as I do, perhaps a ritual like a labyrinth walk (or other form of pilgrimage) might help.
I am slowly, one breath at a time, finding my way back to equilibrium.
Two weeks ago, I was suddenly aware of how wobbly I’d become – spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Like a toddler on new legs, I was stumbling around, bumping into things (and people), and occasionally falling down. Also like a toddler, my emotions had become suddenly unregulated and unpredictable. I cried or got angry at the slightest provocation. And I was making mistakes I don’t normally make.
I knew it was time for a pause. I knew I needed to step away from my adult-sized obligations and simply let my wobbly toddler nature stumble along until she’d figured out how to walk again without harming herself.
As I mentioned in my last post, it’s been a big year, full of significant shifts in both my business and personal life. Mix all of the ingredients of my year – rapid (and unexpected) business growth and increased demand on my time and energy, the ending of a 22 year marriage, solo-parenting to three daughters navigating the path from adolescence to early adulthood, and a few fairly significant volunteer commitments (sponsoring Syrian refugees, hosting race relations conversations, and starting a women’s circle) – and you get a recipe for stress. The wobble is not unexpected.
Though I’m fairly consistent about incorporating self-care practices into my week, it was clear that I had reached a place where I needed to take more radical action.
I knew that if I didn’t put myself first for awhile, I would not be able to be of service to anyone else.
Here’s what I’ve been doing for the last two weeks:
I reduced my screen time to almost nothing, stepping away from social media and emails in particular. I’d noticed that my wobbliness got worse when I spent too much time online, so I got off that treadmill. This was one of the healthiest things I could have done. It relieved a lot of the pressures of having to live up to other people’s expectations, meet other people’s needs, etc. It freed up a lot of space to focus on the healing and soul care I needed to do.
I spent a lot of time outside. Nature heals me. It helps me feel grounded and connected again. I wandered in the woods, played at the beach, and sat for hours in my backyard around the fire. I hugged trees and talked to pelicans and frogs. Mother Earth revealed her Spring splendour to me and, when I paused to pay attention, she helped to heal my hurt and reminded me of my place in the nature of things.
I got physical and sweaty. I rode my bike, went for long walks, and dug in my garden. With each footstep, each revolution of the bike pedals, and each handful of dirt, I worked through my anxiety, my stress, and my hurt. I let my body take over where my mind had gotten stuck. I alchemized some of the ache in my heart by letting my muscles take on the aching for awhile.
I went to see a therapist. I’d become aware that some of my stress was related to some old patterns that I’d developed over years of dysfunctional communication in my marriage. I needed help letting go of those old patterns so that they wouldn’t have control over me anymore. After listening to my story, she gave me wise, holistic advice that I’m still processing and will probably write more about another time.
I let people help me. So many of you helped me – with your kindness, your cards, your financial support, etc. – and there are not enough words to express my gratitude. Accepting help is a humbling and healthy thing, but it’s not something my ego let’s me do very often. When I accept help, though, I am reminded that I am not in this alone and I begin to see the world through a less self-absorbed lens.
I played, slept, and did some deep relaxation. For the first few days, after I’d canceled my client sessions and gotten offline, I slept much more than usual. Then, when I felt rested, I found ways to play. Being barefoot in the sand at the beach helped a lot. I needed lightheartedness to remind me not to take the world quite so seriously. Thanks to a birthday gift from my daughters, I spent a whole day relaxing with a friend at Thermeaoutdoor spa.
I prayed. When I get wobbly, as I did, it’s often a reminder to me that I am trying too hard to carry the world on my shoulders and not living from a place of trust. Reaching out to a Higher Power reminds me that I don’t have to do this all with my own strength. I have a powerful God/dess on my side, so why walk alone? Like a toddler who knows her parent is close by to catch her when she stumbles, I reached out my hand and let Her hold me. “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. S/he will not let your foot be moved; s/he who keeps you will not slumber.”
I meditated. I’m not a very faithful meditator, but when I lose my equilibrium and my mind starts spinning in a hundred directions at once, I know that one of the only ways to find balance again is to plant my seat on my cushion, be still, and take deep breaths. It takes a lot of practice to still the racing mind, but slowly I’m getting back into the habit.
I paid attention. The wobbliness was there to teach me what changes I needed to make in my life, so the first thing I did was slow down enough to pay attention. I paid attention to my body’s ache for more time away from the computer. I paid attention to what the persistent cough might be telling me about what was being stifled in my life. I paid attention to what triggered the tears and anger. I paid attention to how my breathing gets more shallow when I’m under stress and how I sometimes hold my breath. And I paid attention to how my needs were or were not being met. And then I responded accordingly.
I cleared a lot of clutter. After years of neglect, our backyard had begun to resemble the wild kingdom. I began to tend it again, the same way I have been tending my heart – tearing out the seedlings that had grown in the wrong place, trimming back the hedges that were blocking the light, and pulling a lot of weeds that were smothering the beauty. At the end of hours of back-breaking labour, I put a circle of chairs around a small fire pit in the middle of the yard, under the canopy of ancient trees, and my daughters and I have enjoyed many hours of easy conversation around the fire.
I let myself grieve. I reflected often on what David Whyte says in this short video clip… “One of the difficulties of leaving a relationship is not so much leaving the person themselves – because by that time, you’re ready to go. What’s difficult is leaving the dreams that you shared together. And you know that somehow, no matter who you meet in your life in the future, and no matter what species of happiness you will share with them, you will never ever share those particular dreams again, with that particular tonality and coloration. And so there’s a lovely and powerful form of grief there that is the ultimate in giving away, but making space for another form of re-imagination.” One night by the fire, after my daughters had made their way back into the house, I sat for a long time by the dying embers, grieving the flame that had died, grieving the shared dreams and the hopes that things would turn out differently. When the fire was gone, I got up and crawled into bed, alone and content.
I dared to disappoint people in order to care for myself. This is a big one for me, as I have always struggled with a fear of letting people down. But I knew that I could not continue the way I was – trying to ensure everyone around me was happy so that my world would feel safe – and still be healthy and do good work. The words of Oriah Mountain Dreamer’s poem, The Invitation, kept going through my mind… “I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.”
Now, as I make my way back to my work and begin to consider what work calls me next, I am being more intentional about how I step back in. I am working on a deeper understanding of what it means for me to be “openhearted with boundaries”. I am trying to do a better job of managing people’s expectations (ie. if you don’t get a response from an email, please wait a few days). I’m looking after what my body tells me I need. I’m shifting the way I show up in relationships. I am being more careful to protect my energy, my health, and my heart.
I believe that, when I “put on my own oxygen mask first”, I’ll be better able to care for the people around me, and my work will come from a place of abundance rather than depletion.
I also believe that, once in awhile, it’s valuable to return to the legs and heart of a toddler, stumbling around trying to find balance, giggling at things that surprise us, crying whenever our emotions overwhelm us, reaching out to a benevolent grown-up for support when we need it, and exploring the delights of the world with unguarded eyes.
I turned fifty in the middle of my time away. Fifty is a good age to become a toddler again. It’s good to be standing on new legs as I enter the second half of my life.
In honour of my new toddler view of the world, I am currently perched about six feet above the ground in a tree in my backyard. There’s a great spot, in a tree that must be at least a hundred years old, where three massive limbs separate and create a natural nook, that I always thought would be a perfect place for a treehouse. I haven’t built anything permanent yet, but today, on a whim, I carried a ladder and some old couch cushions to the backyard to make myself a makeshift little nest where I can sit and hide and get close to the birds and the squirrels.
How about you? Are you wobbling around on toddler legs? Is it time for you to pause for radical self-care and perspective shift? Is it time to say no for awhile so that you can say a bigger YES to the world that awaits?
If you’re telling yourself that “it sure would be nice, but there’s no way I could do that”, you might want to take a look at your excuses and see if they are true or if they are wrapped up in a story about how the world simply can’t function without you at the helm. You may not be able to step away in the way that I did (I understand the demands of small children and full-time jobs), but you can find your own version that works within your current reality. p.s. If you need some help finding your balance again, or working through the stories that keep you stuck in old patterns, perhaps I can help. I’m taking on a few new coaching clients.